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Neighborhood Tours

Mexican restaurants in Pilsen and Little Village

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Neighborhood Tours

Abuelo's Mexican Grill

2007 S. Damen | 312-733-0329

$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY | BYO

Brothers Angel and Hugo Gomez have transformed a grungy storefront across from the Damen Pink Line stop into a sparkling sandwich shop wallpapered with Latin American record jackets and National Geographic covers. Sopes, tacos, burritos and tortas are well conceived and delicious, demonstrating fine attention to detail. The chorizo sope is a beautiful construction, a soft masa platform topped with piquant meat, artfully mounded with colorful cabbage; shrimp in tacos are fried to tempura laciness, splashed with crema, and dabbed with not-too-hot-but-flavorful salsa (imported from Canada!). The menu is pan-Mexican: the Gomezes are from Cuernavaca, in central Mexico, and they serve cecina from their native Morelos as well as burritos in the flour tortillas of northern Mexico, dressed with the pickled red onions of southern Mexico. Entrees, served with griddled vegetables, have a lot of personality. A torta of marinated steak is griddled medium rare and juicy with sweet chile morron, and cochinita pibil yields cinnamon hints and more dimension than you'd expect. Do drink the water: it's kissed with basil and lime. Afterward, tequila mousse and red velvet cupcakes. The restaurant is now accepting MasterCard and Visa. —David Hammond

Carnitas Don Pedro

1113 W. 18th | 312-829-4757

$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH: SEVEN DAYS | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

The Sunday-morning pork rush at Carnitas Don Pedro presents a trial of forbearance appropriate for the after-church crowd. First one must worm one's way between two counters and a handful of small tables to the back of the line, which may snake into the kitchen, where sturdy men are stirring giant brass vats of roiling pig parts with paddles. Whether you're in the line for a table or the line for takeout, you'll be inching forward among a scrum of customers, cooks, and waitresses. If you're taking out, you'll eventually return to the front of the store, where birria, barbacoa, menudo, brain tacos, and a piquant cactus salad are ordered on the right side; chicharrones, fresh chorizo, and mountains of glistening, steaming carnitas on the left. Specify meat, fat, offal, or some of each and the man with the long knife chops it, piles it high in a cardboard boat, wraps it tight in butcher paper, then hands you a sizable snack to help you fight the urge to break into the package on the way home. At $5.80 a pound, the well-seasoned carnitas here are among my favorites in the city—the high turnover ensures they're hot and juicy, and they come with a brilliantly flavored dark green salsa flecked with plenty of red chile. —Mike Sula

Carnitas Uruapan

1725 W. 18th | 312-226-2654

$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH: SUNDAY-WEDNESDAY, FRIDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED THURSDAY

There's pig paraphernalia everywhere in this fixture on the 18th Street strip, from pictures and sculptures to coin banks and comic strips. A large pan of fork-tender shredded pork is a main attraction, second only to a high stack of chicharrones (fried pork rinds) under the heat lamp. The few tables are packed every morning, and they do a brisk trade in takeout. The limited selection includes carnitas (soft corn tortillas wrapped around shredded pork) and menudo; there are also fresh nopales and on weekends taquitos de sesos, brain taquitos. Sneak a peek into the kitchen and you may get a glimpse of a man stirring three huge vats of bubbling pig parts with a wooden paddle. —Laura Levy Shatkin

La Casa de Samuel

2834 W. Cermak | 773-376-7474

$$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 2, OTHER NIGHTS TILL 11

La Casa de Samuel offers exotica of a sort you won't find at many other restaurants. We started with a bowl of tiny eels—looking a lot like white mung beans with eyes—and enjoyed a platter of frog legs, the meat firm and juicy. The absolute knockout dish was cecina de venado, slabs of salted and dried venison that are rehydrated and griddled; its deep, dark flavor will please those who like beef as well as those who prefer their food on the wild side. We had a chicken breast with a blisteringly spicy brick red India sauce that was excellent with the house-made tortillas. The extensive menu offers goat, boar, and alligator; we took the plunge with the rattlesnake, which was . . . odd, gnarly and jerkylike. For dessert, my dining companion made the right choice: our waiter had only to hear the words banana flambé and he was off, preparing his citrus zest, pan, and liquor bottles; the result, served with a ice cream, was fabulous. —David Hammond

La Casa del Pueblo

1834 S. Blue Island | 312-421-4664

$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

Next to a grocery with the same name, this little cafeteria offers middle-of-the-road Mexican food at reasonable prices, starting at breakfast with egg-and-tortilla dishes like migas and chilaquiles. Dining here is hit-or-miss, with the pork in chile arbol and pollo en salsa (chicken breast cooked in a clear stew of zucchini and corn) among the hits. North Mexican-style tamales, moist with manteca (lard) and filled with slightly piquant meat, are available for carryout; barbacoa, too, is available to go. Chiles rellenos with meat were tasty, layered with chayote and slightly spicy. But patas de puerco (pigs' feet) were the worst thing I've eaten in a very long time: I wouldn't have thought even trotters had such large pockets of meatless and generally tasteless fat wrapped around the bones. Gorditas dulces are an excellent dessert for those who like pastry, flavored with vanilla and shreds of cinnamon bark for a pleasant explosion of flavor. Servers are very friendly and speak English as well as most of us speak Spanish. —David Hammond

La Cebollita

1807 S. Ashland | 312-492-8443

$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | BYO

Just north of 18th along Ashland is this tiny, semi-fast-food joint where you place an order at the counter, then wait to pick it up. The extensive menu has mostly a la carte items like gorditas, sopes, burritos, and tamales. Both of the salsas available in ketchup squirt bottles on the ten tables are delicious; one's made from green tomatillos and jalapeño, the other from smoky, dark chile de arbol. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Cuernavaca Restaurant

1160 W. 18th | 312-829-1147

$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: EVERY NIGHT TILL 11

For more than 20 years this large, family-run Mexican restaurant has been drawing a crowd. It's one of the few in the neighborhood with a full bar, offering a selection of Mexican beers along with frosty margaritas. The menu is loaded with standbys like fajitas, burritos, and tostadas and also boasts several house specialties, including costillas al carbon (Mexican-style barbecued ribs). There's also a cook-at-the-table option available. —Laura Levy Shatkin

La Decima Musa

1901 S. Loomis | 312-243-1556

$$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | DINNER: TUESDAY-SATURDAY | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 2, OTHER NIGHTS TILL 1:45 | CLOSED SUNDAY, MONDAY

Owned and operated by friends and social activists Rosario Rabiela and Carmen Velasquez, this restaurant has a medium-size front eating area and a much larger back room with a union hall vibe. The menu offers standards done, at best, standardly. Chicken flautas were nothing more than chicken wrapped in tortillas and fried. Steak tampiqueña, a little overmarinated, was served with fluorescent orange Spanish rice and frijoles (the beans, seemingly made in-house, were really quite good, as were the spicy little chorizo enchiladas). A stuffed chile pepper, limp and lifeless, failed to hold its own even against bland south-of-the-border queso, and the Milanesa was fried to a tasteless crisp, its edges curling back in black. Red snapper, usually a good benchmark of a Mexican restaurant's ability to prepare seafood, was remarkably overcooked, and the table salsa was watery and soulless. Nonetheless, the atmosphere at La Decima Musa is very pleasant, with live music and a comfortable bar. —David Hammond

La Justicia

3901 W. 26th | 773-522-0041

$$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN, BAR/LOUNGE | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY-SUNDAY TILL 11

This Little Village restaurant puts out the usual Mexican dishes—with a few surprises. We started with an exceptionally flavorful caldo de marisco, the broth so good even the krab in the mix seemed tasty. Our order of camarones rellenos turned out to be shrimp wrapped in bacon bathed in a chile de arbol sauce with praiseworthy bite and texture. Fajitas chillonas was a blend of chicken, steak, fish, and shrimp, not bad despite the disconcerting mix of beasts. But the side of frijoles charros was just the best: plump, unmashed pinto beans nestled into superb liquor with bacon and strips of ham—quite possibly the smartest three bucks I've spent in a long time. —David Hammond

Kristoffer's Cafe & Bakery

1733 S. Halsted | 312-829-4150

$

BAKERY, MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | 7:30 AM-7 PM MONDAY-FRIDAY, 8 AM-4 PM SATURDAY-SUNDAY | OUTDOOR SEATING

Lactose intolerants, consider yourselves warned. The tastiest dessert at this Pilsen cafe is the traditional tres leches cake, made with whole, condensed, and evaporated milk. Owners Carlos and Cristina Chavarria offer the classic vanilla rendition as well as a bouquet of variations, all startlingly moist. Cristina does the baking, a craft she learned while apprenticing at her sister's small home-based bakery in Guanajuato, Mexico. The tres leches recipe is her sister's, but Cristina's favorite dessert, flan with cheese, is her own creation. Made with cream cheese, it has an almost fluffy texture, like flan-flavored cheesecake. Besides breakfast, desserts, and Intelligentsia coffee, the menu offers standard sandwiches and salads, plus a couple of ethnic dishes. —Anne Ford

May Street Cafe

1146 W. Cermak | 312-421-4442

$$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN, GLOBAL/FUSION/ECLECTIC | DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11 | CLOSED MONDAY | OUTDOOR SEATING | BYO

On a dismal industrial stretch of Cermak, the bright, tropical-toned facade of May Street Cafe jumps out like a red-hot tamale. There are other surprises in the cuisine: never having met an alligator we liked, we ordered it for an appetizer, and with a nutty, sage-based mojo criollo, it's not bad, tasting something like—you guessed it—chicken. Michoacan-style mole was more hot than sweet, with pasilla and ancho chiles and just a touch of chocolate, and the chiles rellenos also packed a lot of peppery punch. The Caesar salad wasn't one—just knife-cut romaine with croutons and what could be bottled dressing, but the double-cream Brie and pear quesadillas were inspired; served with sweet crema and chipotle ketchup and listed as an appetizer, they would also be a rich, sweet way to end the meal. —David Hammond

Mr. Churro

1626 S. Blue Island | 312-733-3173

$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | 5 AM-5 PM daily

This churro wholesaler supplies most of the neighborhood with the fried, filled pastries. They're filled with strawberry, chocolate, or vanilla cream and sold both at the store and from mobile carts. Mr. Churro also makes flaky, sweet elephant ears, sold in bulk to area bakeries. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Nuevo Leon

1515 W. 18th | 312-421-1517

$$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: MONDAY-SATURDAY TILL MIDNIGHT, SUNDAY TILL 11 | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

They serve a heap o' flour tortillas and meat in the northerly Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, and for more than 40 years this restaurant has done a fine job of doing the same. Tacos de sabinas are house-made white tortillas with a soft, crepelike consistency—they seem to melt around strips of seasoned steak. Mashed pintos mixed with spicy Mexican sausage, frijoles con chorizo is a densely textured accompaniment that's worth every calorie. Carne a la tampiqueña is the classic skirt steak—found all over Mexico and the menu—with beans, enchilada, and guacamole, steak's soul mate. We really liked the guisado de puerco in salsa roja, a piquant stew with slow-cooked, chile-sauce-saturated pork. Pig also makes an appearance in tangy tamales. If you come earlier in the day, consider ordering some of the renowned breakfast chilaquiles or machacado con huevo (seasoned steak in egg). You can BYOB, or get a cup of foamy, cinnamony Mexican cocoa. —David Hammond

Nuevo Leon

3657 W. 26th | 773-522-1515

$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: EVERY NIGHT TILL MIDNIGHT

At first glance Nuevo Leon looks like just another corner joint, with many of the usual Chi-Mex standards. A few distinctive foods typical of the restaurant's Mexican namesake, however, set it apart. Machacado con huevo is a scrambled egg taco showcasing cesina, shredded beef that's been dried, then rehydrated and pounded. With this we enjoyed a michelada, kind of a beer-based Bloody Mary made with Angostura bitters and Tabasco sauce, fresh-squeezed lemon, salt and pepper, and beer over ice (there's some evidence to suggest that this drink is the long-sought cure for the common cold). The state of Nuevo Leon is landlocked—perhaps that's why the fish we had here was so poorly prepared, dry and unduly fishy. Both it and the soggy fries it came with, though, become much more delicious when splashed with the house-made pico de gallo. The chicken mole was good if unmemorable, the meat relatively meaty and the sauce quite chocolaty. Flour tortillas are most common in the north—and this is one of the few restaurants in Chicago that make their own tortillas de harina; you can really taste the difference. This is a very friendly place; when you come in on weekends, you're offered a south-of-the-border amuse-bouche: a taquito with a dollop of barbacoa, pounded with peppers and onion. Afterward you're brought a complimentary plate of melon, apple, and orange. Nice. —David Hammond

Sabas Vega Carnitas Restaurant

1808 S. Ashland | 312-666-5180

$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH: SEVEN DAYS

Family owned since 1966, this former butcher shop now specializes in carnitas. Shimmering with fat, the drop-dead-gorgeous piggy bits are available seven days a week, but weekends are when Sabas Vega shines. Crowds line up starting at 6 AM for weekend-only treats of birria de chivo, tender goat accented with chile; menudo, the perfect cure for that wild Saturday night; and cabecitas de chivo, steamed goat head. Rice and beans shine with flavor and glisten with lard, cactus salad is a flavorful counterpoint, and there's a full range of aguas frescas and soda, American and Mexican. The tables are comfortable and the waitresses efficient, and occasionally some strolling mariachis make the rounds. On the weekends I suggest arriving well before 9 AM. —Gary Wiviott

Tacos Don Chon

1743 W. 18th | 312-432-1186

$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | 10 AM-4 PM tuesday-friday, 8 AM-4 PM saturday-sunday | closed monday | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

It's a fast-food dive, but its handy location just off the 18th Street el stop brings in locals and commuters alike. Straightforward Mexican fare is what's served, with the occasional specialty on weekends. Otherwise it's soups, tostadas, tacos, enchiladas, and burritos, bursting with ingredients like chorizo, steak, chicken, and pork. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Taqueria El Milagro

1923 S. Blue Island | 312-433-7620

$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

This festive, brightly painted cafe sits on the main floor of the renowned tortilla factory of the same name. The green and salmon walls, painted with trees and oversized flowers, make it one of the more attractive rooms in Pilsen. The food's served up cafeteria style, pan after steaming pan loaded with daily offerings like puerco en verde (pork in green tomatillo sauce), guisado de res (house-special beef in a dark sauce), and lengua de res (stewed beef tongue). Tacos, tamales, chiles rellenos, and burritos are available for takeout, and a large dispenser of chilled horchata bubbles behind the counter for dessert. —Laura Levy Shatkin

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